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Notes from council: Council expresses support for ‘Sauvons Saint-Jean,’ discusses exceptional proposed tuition increases

Catch up on the discussion about cuts to the University of Alberta’s French campus, proposed tuition increases to faculties such as engineering in this recap of the June 15 council.

“Notes from Council” is The Gateway’s ongoing series of recaps of noteworthy items from Students’ Council meetings.

Councillors discuss support for “Sauvons Saint-Jean” campaign

The June 15 meeting of council began with a presentation from the Campus Saint-Jean (CSJ) councillor, Ahdithya Visweswaran, and Chiara Concini, vice-president (external) of L’​Association des Universitaires de la Faculté Saint-Jean (AUFSJ), CSJ’s student representative association. 

The presentation detailed the budget restrictions currently impacting CSJ, with 19 per cent of courses offerings cut in April of 2020. Visweswaran and Concini detailed their “Sauvons Saint-Jean” online campaign, which is currently focused on finding a way to secure a portion of the $121.3 million in federal funding for post-secondary institutions teaching French in a minority setting without support from the Albertan government.

“That federal money requires a proposal of equal funding from the provincial government, and funding for post-secondary education is not at an all time high in Alberta right now,” Concini said. 

In the summer of 2020, Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta (ACFA) named both Alberta’s provincial government and the University of Alberta in a lawsuit that claimed the two institutions were not meeting financial obligations to support CSJ.

Visweswaran argued the ACFA lawsuit emphasizes the lack of support CSJ has received from the provincial government.

“Maybe you’re listening to this presentation thinking, ‘oh, our provinces may be running out of money and they just don’t have enough to put towards CSJ,’” Visweswaran said. “I’d like to add that the current government is actually spending $1.5 million to pay their lawyers to fight ACFA in court, rather than pay CSJ the compensation.”

He said the ACFA lawsuit is seeking $1.3 million in compensation.

“That puts into perspective how the current government is attacking the Francophone community,” Visweswaran said. 

Concini said the “Sauvons Saint-Jean” is now focused on “making noise” on the federal level. 

“Our ability to access this funding is going to come down to our ability to cooperate with the federal government to try and find a solution that doesn’t rely so heavily on accessing provincial funding,” Concini said. 

Visweswaran said that those who are part of the campaign would like to see more from council and from the Students’ Union in general. 

“The first step is to be informed about what is going on at CSJ,” Visweswaran said. “We’d like you to share with students in your faculty and really be outspoken about what CSJ is going through.”

He said that reposting AUFSJ content on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook were key ways students could help spread the word, and that posts are accessible in both English and French.

“You should care about this”: arts councillor

Julia Villoso, an arts councillor, thanked Visweswaran and Concini for their presentation, calling the campaign “amazing work.”

“I can’t stress this enough for everybody, even if you don’t speak French, you should care about this,” Villoso said. “As counselors, our job is to truly represent and advocate for all students on campus. Canada is a bilingual country and our students will have the right to be able to pursue an education in French.”

Philip Miheso, council’s speaker, said the situation CSJ is in makes him “furious.”

“Please keep your members of parliament accountable,” he said. “We must do everything we can because [students at CSJ] are the ones losing the most.”

Chris Beasley, an arts councillor, also said he was grateful for the presentation. 

“I remember the first time I got a presentation from a CSJ a couple of years ago,” Beasley said. “It was really eye opening for me as a new councillor, someone who just didn’t realize what was going on, especially when it comes to like the clear lack of classes that you folks are getting offered and the way that that dwindles every year.”

Beasley argued that there is a “tangible benefit” for the economy when it comes to investing in French education.

“There are a lot of talented folks who immigrate from French language communities or French language countries and are able to go right into getting an education here because of CSJ,” he said. 

They added that the government fighting the ACFA lawsuit seemed wasteful. 

“I always just think it’s absolutely wild that people would spend more money fighting [a lawsuit] than actually investing in [CSJ],” Beasley said. “Especially when an investment … would be doubled by the federal government and is clearly going to be helpful in preventing brain drain and attracting new talent.”

Students’ Union President gives primer on exceptional proposed tuition increases

Rowan Ley, the president of the Students’ Union, gave a brief presentation priming councillors on the university’s exceptional proposed tuition increases for programs like engineering, pharmacy, and law. 

The proposed increases range from 22 to 104 per cent, and if implemented, would affect incoming 2022 students in both graduate and undergraduate degrees.

Ley explained that while tuition can be increased yearly by a maximum of 7 per cent, exceptional tuition increases must go through the Minister of Advanced Education for approval. 

“The Minister is allowed to veto proposals for an exceptional tuition increase, so he can simply say no and send them back, or he can attach conditions to their approval,” Ley said. 

He added that the Minister will consider two criteria for exceptional increases: the quality and fairness of consultation, and program quality improvement. Ley said students could make the case that both of these requirements have been insufficiently met by the university. 

“There are faculties where the consultation was just woefully inadequate, such as engineering, due to both timeframe and general poor quality and execution,” Ley said. 

Ley added that the proposals for program quality vary widely, with some providing detailed budget breakdowns and others having done “an extremely poor job.”

“They basically just identified general things they would like to spend more money on without explaining exactly how the money would be divided between different areas,” Ley said of the proposals.

On the topic of taking action to oppose the increases, Ley said the university has to submit their proposals to the Minister of Advanced Education by June 30. He said in the meantime, the Students’ Union is preparing a series of detailed submissions to the Minister outlining their dissent for the proposals. 

“This is only Plan A,” he said. “We have further plans beyond that, and I would also note that we are exploring legal options …  though we can’t speak about those in detail at this time.” 

“Are we going to just continue being mediocre?” councillor asked 

Nathan Orvold, an open studies councillor, weighed in on the proposed increases, saying that keeping the university’s rankings up is “going to cost money.”

“We’re in a capitalist country and money is what drives us,” Orvold said. “As a Students’ Union, we demand so much from the government, and then when the school says ‘we need more money from somewhere,’ our first reaction is ‘you can’t charge us more tuition.”

He said he sees this as an endless cycle of “demanding things.”

“What do we want to happen?” he asked. “Are we going to continue to just be mediocre and … still request things, or are we going to take the hit because we want this to be the best school?”

Ley said that the purpose of the Students’ Union is to “represent the interests of students.”

“What we would like to happen is for programs to get better and for the government to pay for that, to be very blunt,” Ley said.

He said that he thinks “the world is making a mistake” by increasing the cost of post-secondary education for students. 

“The destabilizing effects of [tuition increases] on society are visible in many parts of the world, especially in the United States,” Ley said. “Just because everyone else is doing it does not mean we should be the next lemming off the cliff.”

Councillors in potentially affected faculties weigh in on increases  

Nathan Brandwein, a pharmacy councillor, said that though “promising consultation” has come out of the faculty of pharmacy, he still wanted to emphasize an aspect of the proposal that he feels still needs to be addressed. 

“We need to consider the adverse effect [increases] will have on various marginalized and underrepresented prospective students in groups,” Brandwein said. 

He said it would be important to consider that tuition increase proposals include tangible initiatives that ensure “reinvestment strategies” are in place to remove the barriers that come with hikes.

“[Financial] barriers adversely impact, and even punish historically marginalized students for seeking to, in the case of pharmacy, serve the health of their own communities, such as rural and impoverished populations.”

Andrew Batycki, an engineering councillor, said that there was only one town hall set aside for consultation with engineering students. 

“They showed a graph of first year engineering tuition and told us that our degree is one of the cheapest in the country,” Batycki said. “If you look at first year only it is, but the cost of engineering classes jumps about $200 from first to second year … it just didn’t make sense.”

Batycki asked Ley what councillors could do to oppose the increases, and Ley said that students could email the dean of their faculty with a detailed description of why they think consultation was insufficient, listing specifics with what could have been done better. 

“Having a paper trail showing that students raised concerns, and then [the faculty] failed to address those concerns is very important for a number of other potential paths going forward,” Ley said.

“If there’s enough pressure on the Minister of Advanced Education then hopefully we can turn his decision a little bit in our direction.”

Rachel Narvey

Rachel is the Gateway's 2020-21 Staff Reporter. This summer, she will complete her MA program in English and Film studies before returning to the U of A in the fall as an Education student. In her spare time she writes poetry and watches Jeopardy. You can often find her sitting alone, eating a burrito.

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